A complicated character

George Wallace: American Populist - Stephan Lesher

George C. Wallace came up the hard way. He was desperately poor and 'scrambled for any job that literally might earn him a few pennies. At the same time, everything he did was with an eye to-ward future political power. Even as a youth, when one job required traveling all around the county inoculating dogs for rabies, he was making friends and winning potential votes. Many remembered him years later and voted for him in droves. In some ways he was quite progressive. As a first-term legislator he sponsored and ramrodded a bill to provide low cost vocational post-secondary education for blacks and whites (separate of course) and many of the issues he favored were populist in nature.


In WW II he enrolled as a cadet to learn to |fly but wound up as a flight engineer on a B- 9 flying several missions over Japan toward the end of the war. Most flights were routine but they had several close calls with engine fires and other mechanical difficulties. Finally he had enough and refused to get in an airplane. His colonel, who could have had him court-martialed, instead sent him to the base hospital where he was diagnosed with battle-fatigue. Forever after he was white-knuckled on every campaign flight.


Stephan Lesher’s biography of Wallace brings Wallace and his role in American politics very readably to light. Wallace will be forever recalled as the man who enshrined racism as a political stratagem. Clearly everything he did, every hand he shook, every statement he made, was intended to get him elected to office. The man lived politics, and during the sixties attacking civil rights was good politics in Alabama.

Wallace argued then and later in 1930 that to take any other approach was political suicide. “It was not any of my making. . . .It was political suicide to offer any moderate approach. . . Alabamians are gullible for that kind of thing. . . .Give the people something to dislike and hate, create a straw man for them to fight, they’d rather be against something than for something. As long as our people are of that frame of mind and like their politics with that brand, then we’re going to have people to take advantage of that kind of situation.” And he did with a vengeance.


It also clear from this biography, that Wallace’s residential campaigns tapped a deeper malaise in the electorate as the votes he garnered during his presidential campaigns reveal. Many of his issues were used successfully in successive campaign by both Republicans and Democrats: prohibition of school busing for integration, school prayer by constitutional amendment, tax reductions for the middle class (to be paid for by taxing church-owned property, and law and order, to name few. In fact, Kevin Phillips considered Wallace as “the first national tax-revolt leader [and] the man also in the vanguard of so many other populist causes.” Lesher reiterates that no president was elected between 1963 land 1992 “without clearly embracing and articulating. ... the Wallace issues. . . .George Wallace’s wish to be rehabilitated by history may or may not be realized - but history already has substantiated his idea of history.”